Early history

The Roman city of Londinium occupied the “square mile” that we know of today as the City, stretching from Newgate and Ludgate in the west, to Aldgate in the east, with the northern boundary marked by Aldersgate, Cripplegate and Bishopsgate. The river Thames marked the southern boundary. Beyond this was countryside.

Anglo-Saxon London occupied land to the west of this settlement, particularly around Aldwych, but it was abandoned at the time of Viking raids (mid-ninth century). It was re-established under Alfred the Great, and began to flourish. In siting his new church west of the original Londinium, Edward the Confessor created Westminster as a separate city.

Over the next few centuries the City developed as the port and trading centre, and Westminster as the seat of government. The City evolved its own local government, with its own laws and customs. The wealth of the City served as a magnet for immigration from all of England, and received a constant influx of foreigners. Westminster, centred upon the abbey and the royal palace, also grew, until the two settlements joined up along the Strand by 1500. The establishment of the legal profession at the inns of court established another extra-mural district of key importance to both communities.

Tudor and Stuart London

Tudor London was characterised by dense settlement spreading rapidly beyond the City wall. Despite a death rate that consistently outstripped births, London’s population grew rapidly. Many of the incomers settled outside the City walls and therefore beyond the reach of City administration. Infrastructure was perpetually strained, and epidemics frequently ravaged the population. Stuart London was frequently jammed with horse-drawn traffic, as recorded by Samuel Pepys, such that the river was often the quickest route from St Paul’s to Westminster.

From time to time Parliament and the City made attempts to control London’s expansion, but without success. The extra-mural parishes housed industries which could develop more freely beyond the restrictive control of the City guilds which operated within the original walled city.

Three distinct areas had emerged by the seventeenth: the West End was a district of fashionable squares and industries for elite society; the East End was a manufacturing centre, densely overcrowded; and in between, the City itself was an international financial entity. There was still only one river crossing: London Bridge linked the City with Southwark, which housed much of the immigrant population.

Between 1750 and 1827 six new bridges were built across the Thames, together with new roads. To ease the shipping congestion in the Pool of London (between the Tower and London Bridge) London docks were built in the early nineteenth century, displacing thousands of slum households.

Victorian London

In the nineteenth century the infrastructure problem was tackled with the creation of public authorities on a metropolitan scale to deal with sewerage, water supply, cemeteries and education, but the anomaly of a huge city without centralised government persisted until the late nineteenth century. In searching early records it is important to remember that, despite the urban sprawl, the county of Middlesex still extended to the western wall of the City, and Essex likewise to the east. London did not officially exist south of the river: the counties of Surrey and Kent shared parishes within Lambeth, Southwark, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey.

In 1889 London County Council (LCC) was formed to govern the City of London and the metropolitan areas of the adjoining counties, which were divided into 28 boroughs, comprising (with links to Wikipedia entries):

north of the river:

south of the river:

This "Greater London" of 1896 extended over 693 square miles, and contained a population of 5,633,806. The City of London (1 square mile, with 31,148 people) continued to be a separate administrative entity. This gives some indication of overwhelming demographic importance of the former extra-mural parishes.

In 1888 the General Post Office and LCC conducted a renaming and renumbering scheme to eliminate duplicate road names throughout Greater London, and to renumber houses consistently, with the lowest number being closest to the local post office. However, sporadic renaming and renumbering had also been carried out in earlier decades. See under Miscellaneous links below.

Twentieth-century London

In 1965 the London County Council and Middlesex County Council were abolished, and the Greater London Council (GLC) was formed, taking in further areas of Kent and Surrey, as well as parts of Essex. 32 new London boroughs were then formed, comprising (with links to Wikipedia entries):

north of the river:

south of the river:

The City of London, still not a London borough, continued to be a separate administrative entity.

In the 1980s the GLC was abolished, and its functions (such as the Inner London Education Authority) devolved onto the individual boroughs.

Historical maps of London

Record offices, libraries and other archives

Miscellaneous links


  • A to Zs of Elizabethan/Restoration/Georgian/Regency/Victorian/Edwardian London (all available at the Guildhall Library bookshop)
  • City of London poor law records (West Surrey FHS)
  • Genealogical gazetteer of mid-Victorian London. Cliff Webb (West Surrey FHS)
  • Greater London cemeteries and crematoria (SoG)
  • Guide to genealogical research in Victorian London. Cliff Webb (West Surrey FHS)
  • Guide to London and Middlesex genealogy and records. Cliff Webb (West Surrey FHS, 2000)
  • Index of London hospitals and their records (SoG)
  • Index of London schools and their records (SoG)
  • Irregular marriages in London before 1754 (SoG)
  • Lists of Londoners. J S W Gibson and H Creaton (1997)
  • London encyclopaedia. Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (Macmillan, 1993) Recommended as an all-round reference to places and institutions past and present.
  • London, Middlesex and Surrey workhouse records (West Surrey FHS)
  • London's bawdy courts 1703-13 (SoG)
  • My ancestors were Freemen of the City of London (SoG)
  • My ancestors were Londoners (SoG)
  • Research in Edwardian London (West Surrey FHS)
  • Streets of the City of London (West Surrey FHS)
  • Times London history atlas (Times Books)

article revised 8 Feb 2015 


Additional information